Writer Mark Boal spent time as an embedded reporter in Iraq, specifically with the men who are tasked as many as twelve times a day to defuse explosives. And in that time, he came to realize that the men who were best at it were wired differently than anyone else, which makes sense. I truly believe that man
y of us end up where we do in life because we couldn’t end up anywhere else if we tried. We are at the mercy of our own nature, and if you’re lucky in this life, you are able to find the job that brings out all your best qualities.
But what if that job put your life in danger a dozen times a day?
That’s the main thrust of Kathryn Bigelow’s dynamic new “The Hurt Locker,” a film that is fact-based, character-driven, and tense from the opening frame to the last. It’s a hell of a picture from this director who has always had a hard time sustaining any sort of commercial momentum. Her last feature was 2002’s “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a Harrison Ford movie that wasn’t great, but that certainly shouldn’t have killed a career dead. I mean, has it really been 20 years since she made “Near Dark”? Seems unbelievable. And in that time, she’s made several films that have emphasized an almost immersive quality, and it’s that aesthetic that she brings to “The Hurt Locker” to fantastic effect. This is the best overall film she’s ever made, and it manages to fit neatly into the voice she’s already established as a filmmaker while hopefully also opening new doors for her as well.
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Jeremy Renner is probably best known from roles in films like “28 Weeks Later” and “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” but his work here should change that. He’s got a face like a plate of mashed potatoes, a little lumpy, a little forgettable, but his eyes suggest a rich and dark inner life, which is perfect for his work as Staff Sergeant William James, who is transferred into an IED unit after their previous team leader gets blown up. James is a hot dog, a guy who willingly hops into even the most harrowing situations without seeming to hesitate at all. In fact, he seems to find small ways to actually amplify the danger in each of these new situations, and that’s what worries Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), since it’s his job to keep James safe in every fresh situation. The third part of their unit is Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), who’s been having real trouble dealing with the residual guilt from the previous team leader’s death. So you take these three volatile personalities, you put them in very tight quarters, and you send them into life-or-death situations over and over and over… and that’s pretty much “The Hurt Locker.”
And I’m not being dismissive or reductive, either. I think the film works really well precisely because they don’t try to build up some phony narrative arc to hang the whole thing on. The film is very slice-of-life, very observational. And that’s precisely why it plays into Bigelow’s strengths. When you look at “Point Break” or, more directly, “Strange Days,” she’s very good at dropping the viewer right into the middle of an action sequence. Experiential action is hard to pull off, and I’m convinced that most of the shaky-cam stuff that gets released is someone’s attempt to do the same thing. But it’s more than just handheld camerawork. Instead, it’s about hooking the viewer in a way that synchs their pulse to the pulse of the scene, that causes real adrenaline spikes in the audience. Bigelow’s a strong enough filmmaker at this point that she exerts absolute control in sequence after sequence. And she never falls back on the standard devices of tension like a bomb counter ticking down to zero or the red wire/green wire nonsense. These characters are professionals, great at what they do, and the tension comes from the fact that the bomb-makers are also pretty damn good at what they do. Each fresh challenge is a puzzle to be solved, and James thrives on the idea that he is the one person suited to do the work. And like any junkie, he has to push himself further and further to get the same high as the film progresses, to the point where he’s putting everyone else in harm’s way, and that escalation is what drives the film’s forward momentum.
The performances in the film are smart and lived-in, and no one seems to be reaching for their Oscar, trying to stand out and overpower the material. Renner’s work is largely internal, but it’s still communicative and smart and emotional. Mackie and Geraghty reveal considerable emotional vulnerability while still playing authentically battle-hardened veterans. There are a number of smaller roles that are peopled by familiar faces like Guy Pearce, David Morse, and Ralph Fiennes, and they manage to blend into the film and never distract. The Pearce role actually works as a great bait-and-switch, and the Fiennes sequence is probably the best in the entire film, unfolding in ways you just don’t expect.
Barry Ackroyd’s one of those guys who has been in the business forever, shooting a ton of English drama. He shot a majority of the early Ken Loach films, and since then, he’s a go-to guy for small and intimate more than anything. Greengrass used him for “United 93,” and that may be what led to Bigelow hiring him here. Between this and the riveting “Green Zone,” Ackroyd has come up with a great shooting style for modern warfare that really doesn’t look like what anyone else is doing. Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders collaborated on the score, which is haunting and sad, and which lends just the right edge to the movie. Tech credits across the board are exemplary. But in the end, what really makes this work is Bigelow. It’s no surprise that she started her career as a painter, since this is less of a conventional film than a portrait of a particular time of person who could only exist in this time and place. I’m not sure this is a film that will be easy to sell to the general public, but anyone who is willing to test themselves will find that it’s a dynamic and memorable experience.
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